Born and raised in Jeddah, I had the luxury in my childhood to enjoy many memorable American sitcoms and cartoons on local channels. In the early 90s, Saudi Channel 2 entertained me with countless shows. One of those was The New Three Stooges cartoons, a very popular animated series of the mid-60s. I was hardly seven or eight and wasn’t aware about those three characters in the cartoons were real. I would have never known in my childhood about their being real had my school timings not changed.
In 1994, when I studied in the 5th standard, it was the afternoon shift of my school Pakistan International School Jeddah (PISJ) but my timings shifted from afternoon to morning when I entered my 6th class. The year was 1995 when Sony Entertainment Television was launched later that year and the channel was airing three American television series one after one in the afternoon. First The Three Stooges (in English), then Dennis The Menace and I Dream Of Jeannie (both dubbed in Hindi). As Paulo Coelho says, Maktub, isn’t it? And I was astonished at the Stooges being real and funnier than the cartoons. I had to return from school and try to catch this show as soon as possible.
The Three Stooges were the vaudeville team in the golden age of comedy which mostly featured Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard. The man who made me laugh at that show was that fat bald funny guy Curly but I used to get annoyed sometimes when I return from school and catch the show and notice that someone else than Curly was featuring on that day’s episode. And I asked myself where did that fatty go? With time, I came to understand the backstories of unarguably the most well-known comedy team the world has ever known.
When The Three Stooges came to prominence in the mid-1930s, the golden age of comedy was still on the run with Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel And Hardy, and The Marx Brothers already dominating in the United States for more than twenty years. And this team, along with other greats like Abbott And Castello began to carry the torch.
But those were the sickening times as the world moved towards the second Great War. Sometimes I wonder how the golden age of comedy coincided with those depressing decades. Perhaps the entertainers with a disturbed struggling journey, unhappy life, and tragic personal tales know the meaning of happiness and have the best of laughs.
How The Team Was Created?
In the early days, Moe and his brother Shemp were seeking work in show business. Then in 1921, Moe got the chance to work in Ted Healy‘s vaudeville shows. Two years later, Moe was performing in one of Ted’s stage performances when he noticed Shemp in the audience. Moe yelled at him and Shemp responded which led to a funny argumentative performance between the brothers leading to amuse the spectators. Ted took notice of all this and immediately hired Shemp.
Larry’s parents, in his teenage years, were sending him to a European music school to make his professional career as a violinist and he would have joined if the first World War had not interfered. By 1925, Moe had prematurely retired from acting when he got married and focused on his new life. So only Shemp was working under Ted for some years until Larry met them and joined in 1928. By the end of the same year, Ted pulled Moe out of retirement to rejoin him. By 1929, Moe, Shemp, and Larry worked as a unit for the first time.
Readers! this is how Ted Healy created the team or to be more precise, the three stooges were unified to perform with their boss. Moe, Shemp, and Larry were the original line-ups and along with Ted, they were named ‘Ted Healy and his Racketeers’. Later on, they were ‘Ted Healy and his Stooges’. Together they performed for some years until their contract expired in 1934.
It is said that employer Ted Healy was alcoholic and abusive. Shemp gave up on his behavior, quit the team, and focused on his solo career. And then entered the man who carried this team on his own to make them world-famous, Moe’s other brother Jerome Howard.
When Moe introduced Jerome to Healy, he was unimpressed because he thought he doesn’t look funny with long chestnut-red hair and a mustache. Jerome left and returned with a shaved head and said “Boy do I look girly”. Healy heard girly as Curly and hired him as Shemp’s replacement with a convincing shaved funny face. Boy, I wonder if Shemp had not given up, this team would have never made the name for which we remember them. It seems like sometimes giving up is the best idea. It was a golden twist of fate as, after the contract expiry in 1934, Ted Healy departed and they officially became The Three Stooges and signed with Columbia Pictures.
Curly’s Peak to Tragic End
Columbia Pictures first offered them $600-a-week for the first year with a renewable option. After the huge success of the first film, they earned $1000 for it and the future offer went lucrative with $7500 per film. This hugely successful journey continued for 23 years with the production company. During the period, the team made 190 short films out of which Curly featured in the first 97 films and is widely considered to be the most successful period for the team.
Curly was the God-gifted mercurial talent of the slapstick comedy. Before joining them, Curly used to hang around backstage and enjoy his brothers performing with Healy and enjoying their acts. For me, he is one of the greatest comedians of all time for one major reason, he was an original performer without formal or professional training. Most of the comedy greats of his time were trained but he was handpicked by his brother to take Shemp’s place and the rest is history. His childish mannerism, funny facial expressions, high-pitch voice, silly noises, and physically nonsensical comic timings were his features making most of his fans entertained.
This is from their short film Pardon My Scotch, a short film released in 1935 (their 9th of 190 films). Here you see his reaction to the bread as if it is staring at him. These are the three different facial reactions he gave to bread in around 0.75 SECONDS! If I include the retakes, I wonder how many times he pulled his muscles to one single shot. And many more in his career. And that was Curly’s greatness in the comedy. He was fast and holds an absolute distinction in physical comedy.
Viewers often remember Jerry Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield, Jim Carrey, Peter Sellers, and many many more in the category of one of the greatest physical comedians from the talking cinema of the 20th century. And Curly is mostly forgotten.
Collectively, the team peaked from 1934 to 1941 and many critics agree that Moe, Larry, and Curly were physically at their best to make the viewers laugh. But to the team’s unfortunate innocence, the team never realized their potential and worth. They could never believe how significant was their rank in the world of comedy that for 23 years of business with Columbia Pictures, they remained underpaid and their salary never increased. The biggest culprit was Harry Cohn, the co-founder of Columbia Pictures whose deception of their misjudgment made them realize too late that they were worth millions. All those prime years, Harry Cohn kept lying to them that the market of comedy shorts was meeting downfall.
Harry Cohn’s biggest damage to the team was not taking Curly’s dropping health into a concern for once. In the early 40s, Curly’s physical decline began, and suffered minor strokes. His weight increased, wasn’t physically and verbally quick as he used to be. In 1945, Curly was found to have serious hypertension, obesity, and retinal hemorrhage. The doctors had recommended the rest so that he can regain his health and strength. Moe had pleaded to give him rest for good but Cohn was afraid of losing profits. So he refused to give Curly rest and forced him to continue working leading to disturbing consequences.
As expected, Curly’s health deteriorated further. In the last few films from 1946 onwards, Moe was coaching him in his dialogues as he was forgetting. Frequently collaborated director Jules White had admitted difficulties shooting with Curly. Curly’s voice went deeper and his actions slowed further. A viewer can easily observe the decline in Curly’s comic timing in his final 20 films out of 97. Curly had to prematurely retire from acting when he suffered a stroke during the shooting of Half-Wits Holiday. Shemp was immediately called back to take his place.
Curly being the biggest reason for The Three Stooges’ success faced the most painful years. The miseries hadn’t ended at retirement. After work, he suffered a massive stroke in 1947. A few years later, he was partially paralyzed and was in a wheelchair by 1950. He suffered another stroke the very next year and had to live in the hospital. Later that year, the Howard family was informed to collect him as his mental condition was collapsing and had become a problem for the nursing staff. Moe, being under the contract, was unable to give his family the much-needed time and moved his brother to the other hospital. In early 1952, the Howard family was informed that Curly has died in the hospital. He was only 48.
With Curly’s departure from the films, the team met an obvious decline in humor. It was pretty obvious and predictable that none of his replacements (Shemp, Joe, DeRita) will match his comic timing or fill the gap he left wide open. The weakest of all replacements was Joe Besser. While joining the team, he actually put a clause specifically prohibiting not hitting him. The physical beating was one of the norms of the team’s prime segments of comedy when Moe used to hit the other stooges. In Curly-Joe DeRita‘s time, the team met resurgence when they featured in six films and the animated series ran in the 1960s.
My Favorite The Three Stooges Short Films
1934 – Punch Drunks
1934 – Men In Black
1934 – Three Little Pigskins
1935 – Pop Goes the Easel
1935 – Pardon My Scotch
1936 – Ants in the Pantry
1936 – Disorder in the Court
1936 – False Alarm
1936 – Slippery Silks
1937 – The Sitter Downers
1938 – Tassels in the Air
1939 – We Want Our Mummy
1939 – Calling All Curs
1940 – You Natzy Spy!
1940 – A Plumbing We Will Go
1942 – What’s the Matador?
1942 – Sock-a-Bye Baby
1943 – They Stooge to Conga
1943 – Dizzy Detectives
1943 – Back from the Front
1943 – Three Little Twirps
1943 – Higher Than a Kite
1943 – I Can Hardly Wait
1944 – Idle Roomers
1944 – Gents Without Cents
1944 – No Dough, Boys
1945 – Three Pests in a Mess
1945 – Booby Dupes
1946 – G.I. Wanna Come
Men In Black, released in 1934, is the only Stooge film to reach the Oscars when Jules White got nominated for Best Live Action Short Film.
The Natzy Spy! became the first Hollywood film to satirize Nazis, The Third Reich, and Adolf Hitler. Moe Howard was the first actor to play a comic version of Hitler, nine months before Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
In the past few weeks, I have watched all the 97 short films featuring Curly and I want to sum up that there is no comedy team like The Three Stooges who could perform better surreal humor than them. Their nonsensical slapsticks are a separate dimension of comedy-verse. You can pull the same silly actions they attempted but you won’t get that popularity and acceptance that they built in their time. They were unique assembling. They were hardworking and dedicated comedians. In one of the earliest films, Pardon My Scotch in 1935, Moe broke three ribs during one shot. The camera continued to roll, he lifted and walked towards Larry and Curly, slapped them, and then fainted down.
See, every comedian or a comedy team had the artistry to attract the viewers. But The Three Stooges had no honest quality of presenting comedy of above par standard. They were the stooges who make people of all ages and in every period laugh and burn their bellies out. Entertaining the people by being stupid was their main charisma. They didn’t hold any critical acclaim but watching all those short films makes me think about their characters being lower-class fellas struggling to find work and failing again and again when the Great Depression was alarming at their very pinnacle of comedy.
A bunch of degenerates faking as highly reputed officers, doctors, scientists, and businessmen joining elite parties and ending up throwing pie cakes at each other was a slap on society. How immoral of those socialites!
Besides Curly, one major reason for the team’s success was that Moe Howard and Larry Fine stayed from the beginning until the end. The Three Stooges lasted for around 50 years in the business, and Moe and Larry featured in almost every single project.